The Covid-19 pandemic has its villain. And it’s not the virus. Even the most outlandish Hollywood disaster movie wouldn’t entertain the notion of a president who encourages the public to go out more during a public health emergency, as Jair Bolsonaro has done.
The Brazilian president has denied the seriousness of coronavirus, rejected the advice of health officials, fought with governors trying to take precautions, put the poor at greatest risk – and jeopardised a coordinated global response to a threat that might change the course of humanity.
Even before the pandemic, Bolsonaro stood out within a group of elected despots – yet with Covid-19, he has truly surpassed his peers. Donald Trump, despite his initial xenophobic response, has started to recognise the seriousness of the coronavirus. Viktor Orbán has used the health emergency as an excuse for a power-grab, but recognises that the virus is a real threat.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has promoted protests against congress and the supreme court and repeatedly doubled down on denial of coronavirus science: “This virus isn’t everything they say it is,” he said to supporters on 16 March.
According to Imperial College London, the difference between adopting total isolation and not doing so equals one million lives lost in Brazil. Bolsonaro, however, believes only in himself. With him, it’s not about post-truth but self-truth. He goes live on Facebook to discredit scientific research and call coronavirus a “little flu” or “little cold”. This week, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram removed coronavirus-related posts from his profile because they spread “disinformation” and did “actual harm to people”.
In March, following Bolsonaro’s visit to his idol Trump, more than 20 people in his entourage tested positive for coronavirus. What did he do? He broke quarantine and headed off to a demonstration against congress and the supreme court. He shook hands and held his supporters’ mobile phones for selfies. “If I get the virus, the responsibility is mine,” he said. At no point did he stop to think he might infect others. Brazilians do not even know whether Bolsonaro caught Covid-19. He claims he had two negative tests, but refuses to show results.
In a nationwide broadcast last week, he urged an end to the isolation advocated by his own government. The next day, followers held rallies across the country calling for businesses to reopen. The already overwhelmed courts had to ban an official proclamation that pushed people to end isolation with these words: “Brazil can’t stop”.
It was only this Tuesday that Bolsonaro finally started to accept the crisis is more than “media hysteria”. Under pressure from ministers and losing support among his allies, he called the pandemic “the biggest challenge of our generation”. As he spoke, city streets echoed with protests as those already opting for self-isolation clanged pots and pans and shouted “Bolsonaro out!” for the 15th consecutive night.
But this doesn’t represent a meaningful U-turn. It just adds to the chaos. Just a few days before, Bolsonaro had visited Brazil’s satellite cities and talked to residents about the need to restart the economy. He ramped up the ongoing war against state governors, especially São Paulo’s and Rio de Janeiro’s, formerly Bolsonaro’s allies but now declared enemies. On Monday, João Doria, São Paulo’s governor and a 2022 presidential hopeful, enjoined people in Brazil’s richest state: “Don’t follow the advice of the president of the republic!”
Bolsonaro behaves like a maniac, but he is calculating. He is gambling with the lives of 210 million Brazilians because he wants to avoid a recession that might undermine his re-election. But the president’s survival chances are diminishing. Many requests have been lodged for his impeachment, and opposition leaders signed a letter calling for his resignation. Even among the staunchest conservatives, a consensus is emerging that he must be isolated.
At greatest peril are poor communities, which struggle to self-isolate because of one- and two-room favela homes that often lack plumbed sewage and running water. Social movements have launched campaigns to guarantee basic food and cleaning products for such residents, most of whom are black. “Us for us” is the motto of these organisations that know they cannot rely on a state intent on destroying the public health system, along with labour rights.
Bolsonaro had offered informal workers a paltry 200 Brazilian real (£31) a month to see them through the pandemic – congress finally approved BRL 600 (£93). This is not enough for a population already starting to go hungry and grappling with a dengue epidemic.
As elsewhere, the poor have been contaminated by the jet-setting rich. The first death in Rio de Janeiro cast a light on Brazil’s unofficial apartheid: the victim was one of the many housemaids forced to continue working during the pandemic – her employer had just come back from Italy. After this avoidable tragedy, the children of domestic workers launched an online campaign, “For our mothers’ lives”. They urged rich employers to support their poor parents so they didn’t need to travel to work during this time of risk.
Yet the president is sending exactly the opposite message. Since a virus respects no borders, Bolsonaro is not just a threat to Brazil, but the entire world.
Translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty
• Eliane Brum is a Brazilian journalist, writer and documentary maker